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Swissair Tragedy

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Gander remembers: Even the strong will need help

Jodie Turner
Lighthouse staff

 GANDER - The crash of Swissair Flight 111 was a time of remembering for Gander residents, site of Canada's largest air disaster.

 The DC8 slammed into the earth minutes after take-off, 7:10 a.m. December 12, 1985. Passengers and crew numbered 256, mainly American peace keepers, heading home for Christmas. There were no survivors.

 Sandra Kelly, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador learned of Swissair's doomed flight through radio reports.

 "It immediately flashed through my mind," she says, "I wonder what the people there have to deal with . . . my thoughts and prayers will be with them this week."

 On November 11, 1985, Ms Kelly began her political career as town counsellor. One month later, the day of the crash, the deputy mayor was called to fill the absent mayor's place.

 "Never was I so grateful for a background in public health," she says. She and her husband, a family doctor, had never considered they might both get called out of the house at the same time.

 Parents of two small children, they turned to neighbours as well as their own parents for help. "It was quite devastating," she says.

 At first light, the public was unsure which flight had crashed. They knew half the town council was on a plane and worried they hadn't survived.

 "We had a sense of guilt that we were relieved it was not our own friends," she says. "It was other people's sons, daughters, friends."

 The deputy mayor quickly drove to the crash site. On the roadside she found pieces of luggage in perfect condition - and a container of baby powder. "Why is it that no one survived? It seemed such a cruel thing."

 She sympathizes with local searchers who have had similar findings. "You relive that."

 She credits the complete sense of helplessness as being particularly difficult to deal with - and the nearness of Christmas.

 "The whole town was mobilized, lots of police, military, uniformed personnel dealing with the aftermath. It was such a difficult time to go ahead with Christmas celebrations."

 Every happy event was preceded by a minute of silence for the families, a dedication to the children of the victims. "That went on quite awhile," she says. Every December 12, memories surface with special prayers going to surviving families.

 The Gander flight was chartered by the United States military. Bodies were flown home for identification and autopsies so there was no immediate influx of family.

 "We were connected by telephone and television," she says. "It was a very different feeling than having the families come."

 Over the years, nearly every family has made a pilgrimage to Gander. "People from all over the world have visited," she says. "It took us a lot longer to meet the families than in [the Swissair] tragedy.

 "We have a special statue of peace keepers. It has become a very significant memorial in Newfoundland. A place of peace."

 Gander residents were concerned about the physical health of firefighters who fought the blaze. A detailed series of tests determined there were no long-term side effects.

 Ms Kelly expresses concern for the fishermen, police, coast guard and everyone helping with the rescue. "Do they realize the trauma? The agonizing thoughts that will stay with them? Many of our firefighters and police went through an extremely frustrating time."

 She recommends counselling and debriefing.

 "You don't think about yourself and what you're going through," the minister says. "Only after it was all over we found that. We thought they were strong people and it wouldn't be a problem. We said we didn't need counselling.

 "It was deemed afterwards people needed to get together as a group . . . to deal with what had happened."

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